Watkins, Walter C., Jr. 1946(?)–
Walter C. Watkins, Jr. 1946(?)–
When Walter C. Watkins became president of the Detroit branch of one of the country’s largest banks in 1998, he became the first African American to head the top bank in the city. Watkins had been with the National Bank of Detroit since his graduation from college, and his elevation from executive vice president to president was considered a sign that the new parent company possessed a good deal of confidence in its local management team.
Born in the mid-1940s in Nashville, Watkins grew up in Tennessee, where his first exposure to the financial world came with his father’s job as a courier for a Nashville bank. He graduated from Fisk University, Nashville’s historic African American college, in 1968 with a degree in business administration. In order to find work, Watkins was forced to move north because he realized that few financial institutions in the South would hire an African American for a career-track position. He had already spent a summer in Detroit working at one of the factories operated by the Chrysler Corporation, and he was accepted for a slot in the management training program at what was then called the National Bank of Detroit. Watkins arrived in 1968 with few possessions. “I had no car, no apartment,” Watkins told Lorene Yue in the Detroit Free Press.” I just showed up with my shirts on hangers.”
Watkins completed the management training program and began his rise through the ranks of the company. He became a branch manager in the early 1970s at a bank on Detroit’s east side, and was promoted to loan officer, where he worked with minority business owners large and small. It was a time in the city when African Americans were making tremendous gains in Detroit’s political, cultural, and economic life. “It’s safe to say that there are more opportunities today for minorities, but there’s still a long way to go,” Watkins told the Detroit Free Press in 1975. After earning a master’s degree in business administration from Wayne State University in Detroit, he was promoted to a vice-president post at NBD in 1980, and three years later was made group head of the institution’s Midwest banking division. Watkins rose to first vice president in 1985, and a year later, became the second African American member of the Detroit Golf Club, an exclusive, formerly segregated private club whose first African American member was Detroit’s mayor, Coleman A. Young.
In 1988, Watkins was named head of NBD’s Eastern group, but in 1992 he took on a more crucial role in NBD’s Michigan operations as head of the Detroit East Regional Banking Center. In 1994, with a merger in the works between NBD and First Chicago Bank, the company elevated him to director of the southern
At a Glance…
Born c. 1946, in Nashville, TN; married to Harriet; children: two daughters. Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1968; Wayne State University, M.B.A., 1977.
Career: Began career at National Bank of Detroit as a management trainee, 1968, became branch manager, 1972, promoted to vice-president, 1980, group head in the Midwest banking division, 1983, first vice president, 1985, head of NBD’s Eastern group, 1988, senior vice president, 1994; First Chicago NBD, executive vice president and head of Michigan regional banking, 1997-98, president, 1998-.
Addresses: Office— Bank One, 611 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Ml 48226.
metropolitan regional banking division. With that promotion, Watkins also became a member of NBD’s senior management group in Michigan. Two years after the formal creation of First Chicago NBD in 1995, Watkins became executive vice president and head of Michigan regional banking, a position he held from 1997 through the end of 1998. In this capacity, he was responsible for all Michigan branches of the bank and the welfare of employees.
When Banc One of Columbus, Ohio, merged with First Chicago NBD in the fall of 1998, yet another bank was created: Bank One Corp., one of the five largest banks in the United States. Watkins was named Detroit president to succeed retiring NBD executive Tom Jeffs. Although Bank One’s company headquarters would be in Chicago, Watkins’s role in maintaining a strong and vital corporate presence for the institution in Detroit was unchanged. His new duties would include dealing with legal and regulatory compliance issues, and he was now answerable to a team of bank officers in Chicago. With the merger, Watkins became a member of the management roster of the fourth-largest bank holding company in the United States. Holding assets of $264 billion, Bank One was also the largest issuer of Visa cards in the world.
The subsuming of NBD, a fixture in Detroit since 1933, was part of a new wave of bank acquisitions and mergers that were leaving few homegrown financial institutions independent, especially those that served urban markets. Bernard Parker, co-chair of the Detroit Alliance for Fair Banking, told Yue in the Detroit Free Press that his group was initially wary about the merger of First Chicago NBD and Banc One, but in the end was pleased about Watkins’s promotion to president. The Alliance, a community watchdog group that works to ensure fairness in banking and lending practices for Detroit residents, feared that the new bank’s operations in Detroit would be relegated to a lesser status now that it was part of a much larger national bank headquartered elsewhere. But after meeting with representatives from Bank One, the Alliance’s concerns abated and were replaced by faith in Watkins as leader and symbol of a new era. Parker said Watkins was ideally suited for the job of overseeing what would become one of Banc One’s largest markets in the country. His presidency, the Alliance chair remarked to the Detroit Free Press, conveyed the idea that “African Americans can do more than just community relations. I think he is really going to become a role model.” Watkins’s predecessor at NBD agreed. Tom Jeffs was happy to be handing over his duties to someone who knew the Detroit market so well. “It’s always a source of real comfort to know that if you are leaving that you are leaving the keys to someone you’ve worked with for a long time, who isn’t a stranger; somebody who is really well-known and liked in this organization and Walt meets all of those tests really well,” Jeffs told Yue in the Detroit Free Press.
Watkins planned to continue NBD’s program, operated in conjunction with the Detroit Alliance for Fair Banking, to provide small-business loans, mortgages, and community development funds for Detroit. Bane One pledged a total of three billion dollars to fund the program. “This is not a charitable contribution, these are good loans, and it’s good business,” Watkins told Detroit Free Press writer Molly Brauer. He also sits on the boards of several corporate and community groups, including the Health Alliance Plan, Downtown Detroit Development Authority, Detroit Works Partnership, and the Urban Bankers Forum. The father of two grown daughters, he lives in the Detroit suburb of Livonia with his wife, Harriet.
Crain’s Detroit Business, September 28, 1998, p. 3.
Detroit Free Press, November 25,1975; July 5, 1986; June 26, 1998; October 10, 1998.
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